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A dysfunctional family and a snap decision make a compelling backdrop to Una’s debut novel

A Crooked Tree by Una Mannion

It’s a child’s worst nightmare… an angry, exhausted, single mother orders her argumentative daughter out of the car and on to the roadside, leaving her alone to walk the five miles home.

This spur-of-the-moment decision will have far-reaching and devastating consequences not just for 12-year-old Ellen Gallagher but for her four siblings, an unruly family growing up in the mountains of rural Pennsylvania in the 1980s.

Welcome to A Crooked Tree, the rich and atmospheric debut novel from Una Mannion, a writer who was born in Philadelphia but now lives in County Sligo in Ireland, and who thrills us with this resonant, moving and gripping coming-of-age tale set in the days when playtime meant roaming free, and the obsession with technology had not started to erode childhood experience.

Written through the eyes of Ellen’s 15-year-old sister Libby, and with a tenderness and compassion that will take your breath away, this acutely perceptive and haunting story of domestic dysfunction captures all the uncertainty, emotion, frustration and yearnings of adolescence as a group of free-range youngsters are forced to peer into the cruel realities of the adult world.

It’s the last day of the summer term in 1981 for the five Gallagher children who live way up on Valley Forge Mountain in Pennsylvania, and as their mother drives them home from school, fighting breaks out on the back seat.

Worn out after her work as a receptionist in a busy hospital A&E unit, and angered when Ellen’s arguing goes too far, their mother suddenly swerves over to the hard-shoulder and orders her daughter to get out of the car.

Ignoring the protests of the other children that it’s getting dark and they are still five miles from home, she accelerates away, leaving Ellen standing in her school pinafore and knee socks on the gravel verge in the fading light.

‘What none of the family knows, as they drive off leaving the diminutive girl to walk home, is what will happen next’

What none of the family knows, as they drive off leaving the diminutive girl to walk home, is what will happen next. But it’s her older sister Libby who looks back to see Ellen ‘facing away from us, looking down over the bridge, where columns of cars funnelled along the turnpike.’

Nature-loving Libby is obsessed with The Field Guide to the Trees of North America, a gift her Irish immigrant father – who moved away from their home some time ago to live and work in New York City – gave her before he recently died.

Still grieving for him, Libby finds solace in The Kingdom, a stand of red oak and thick mountain laurel near her home, where she has a secret ‘fort’ tucked away off the beaten track and marked out by an old and crooked oak tree.

And it is to this secret sanctuary that she can escape from her large, fractious family and share menthol cigarettes, lukewarm beers and mood swings with her best friend Sage Adams.

But there are changes ahead over this long, hot summer… Sage has a holiday job, her oldest sister Marie has graduated and will soon be moving out, and local troublemaker, 20-year-old Wilson McVay, is an increasingly unsettling presence.

Something feels ‘wrong’ for Libby, and sometimes there is nowhere to escape…

Mannion proves to be an exciting new voice in literary fiction as she unleashes her unflinching and searingly honest exploration of a group of children struggling to survive a series of disturbing events with an assurance that is both powerful and impressive.

This is an already fractured family, wrenched dramatically from their torpid acceptance of an uneasy status quo by the reverberations of one rash and reckless act which will challenge their relationships, and all they have ever known and loved about the place they call home.

And in Libby Gallagher, we have a complex and utterly compelling narrator, a teenager caught between childhood and adulthood, her troubled life as off-kilter as the crooked tree that is the marker for her secret sanctuary.

Constantly covering up for her neglectful, disconnected mother while desperately trying to hold on to memories of her dead father, Libby learns the hard way that that even a dear and long-held friendship can become dangerously fragile.  

Tingling with menace and mystery, and set against a stunning backdrop of mountains, forests and a history dating back to the Native Americans, The Crooked Tree is a triumph of clever plotting, evocative writing, and an emotional intensity which lingers long after the last page has turned.

(A Crooked Tree by Una Mannion, Faber & Faber, hardback, £14.99)

Pam Norfolk
Pam Norfolk has been writing book reviews for over ten years, including for the Wordsworth Trust. She has also worked as a reporter and sub-editor on regional and national newspapers.

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